Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Debuts of 2018

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Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish, a weekly meme that now resides at That Artsy Reader Girl. The meme first came about because of a love of lists. Who doesn’t love lists? The original creators also wanted their lists to be shared with fellow book lovers and to ask that we in turn share ours with them and connect with other book bloggers. To learn more about participating, stop by their page dedicated to it and dive in!

This week’s topic: Top Ten Favorite Debuts of 2018

I’m always excited at the end of each year to have discovered favorite debut novelists or new authors who have broken onto the scene for the very first time, and 2018 was no exception. Today’s Top Ten Tuesday topic is a Freebie, and I’ve decided to use it to shine a spotlight on these rising stars.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War is the story of Rin, a war orphan who was adopted into an opium-running peasant family from a poor southern province of Nikara. Life was hard, but tolerable—that is, until they tried to marry her off to a man three times her age. A girl like her has few other options, however; but Rin is determined not to become some fat merchant’s bed slave, surprising everyone when she decides to study for the Keju imperial examinations and ends up acing them to get the top score in the province. An achievement like this automatically gets her into Sinegard, the empire’s foremost academy for military and combat training, which as it turns out is no easy place for a poor southern girl, where the student body is mostly made up children of the Nikan elites. To earn an apprenticeship, Rin must work harder than everyone else in the first year to prove her worth. Eventually though, the school’s eccentric Lore master agrees to take her on, recognizing in her a deadly potential. Under Jiang’s tutelage, Rin begins to learn of secret histories and the lost art of communing with the gods, beginning her journey to master the near-mythological forces of shamanism. But before her training can be completed, tensions between the Nikara Empire and the warlike Federation of Mugen across the narrow sea finally reach a breaking point, erupting into all-out war. Inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese War in the early half of the 20th century, The Poppy War includes many parallels to real events, though the setting more resembles the culture and civilization of the Chinese Song Dynasty, where religion and worship of folk gods played a large part in the people’s daily lives. The result is a heady mash-up of fantasy and historical fiction, peppered with many elements derived from Chinese mythology, traditions, and folklore. This novel has already rocketed up to the top of my list of favorite fantasy reads of all time, and to say I wholeheartedly recommend The Poppy War would be a massive understatement. (Read the full review…)

Scream All Night by Derek Milman

At the center of this coming-of-age tale is 17-year-old Dario, whose father Lucien Heyward is the legendary director of dozens of beloved B-Horror cult films. However, few were aware of the things that truly went on behind the walls of Moldavia, the castle estate where Lucien directed all his projects. Dario was just a boy when he was cast in the starring role of one of his dad’s movies, and was subjected to unbearable abuse as well as emotional pressure at Lucien’s hands while on the set. Life got so bad for Dario, that soon after the movie was completed, he had himself legally emancipated from his father, choosing instead to be raised in a foster facility rather than step foot in Moldavia Studios ever again. For years, Moldavia carried on with the business of making campy movies—until the news breaks that Lucien Heyward is dying. Refusing to go out quietly, the eccentric director decides to invite all his family, friends, and fans to a mysterious event as a final sendoff. Dario reluctantly agrees to attend, with a promise to himself that this would be his last time at Moldavia. Instead, he finds himself roped back into his past when it is revealed during the reading of the will that Lucien had named Dario the heir to his studio and legacy. A quirky dramedy, Scream All Night delivers a unique spin on a familiar idea—that of going back to your roots and rediscovering the family and friends you left behind, in spite of the painful memories. It’s a story that’s full of pleasures, and genuine even in its sometimes-over-the-top portrayal of love and family. It’s a coming-of-age journey full of sadness and regrets, but also hope and lots of laughter. All in all, the novel was an unexpected surprise, both in terms of its sentimental poignancy and how much I enjoyed it. (Read the full review…)

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

Seventeen-year-old Alice Proserpine has never stayed in one place for long. Most of her childhood memories involve being on the road, staying with one family friend or another until her mother Ella decided that they had to move on. Ella never spoke of why they had to live this way, but Alice always felt the sense that her mother was trying to run away from something. Alice can guess from Ella’s tight-lippedness about her past that it might have something to do with the Hazel Wood, a magnificent home nestled somewhere in the woods of upstate New York. The estate belonged to Alice’s grandmother Althea Proserpine, an author who achieved cult celebrity with her book of fairy tales titled “Tales from the Hinterland”. It was probably no coincidence that no sooner had they received news of Althea’s death, Ella finally decided that they could settle down in the city and start a normal life. She even marries Harold, a wealthy businessman, so that Alice has to start going to school at an exclusive academy for rich kids, where she feels like a fish out of water. The only person closest to a friend is Ellery Finch, whose father is one of the richest people in New York City. Finch also happens to be an Althea Proserpine superfan, and has been fascinated with Alice ever since he found out that the author was her grandmother. Then one day, Alice comes home from school to find that her mother has been stolen away, and the only clue she left behind was a message: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.” This is a novel filled with so much breathtaking allusion and tantalizing prose that it’s almost overwhelming to consider the amount of setup packed into the first few chapters. Although the fantasy aspect doesn’t come into play for quite a while, even from the start I could feel the aura of mystery and magic wrapped around everything despite the ordinary urban setting. (Read the full review…)

The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

Backed by a fascinating premise that blends together historical fiction and fantasy, this novel held my attention captive from beginning to end. Set in an alternate World-War-I-era America, at the core of this tale is “magical science”, also known as empirical philosophy, a system of magic that uses the artform of “sigilry” to perform amazing feats like summoning the wind, sculpting clouds of smoke, teleporting from one place to another, or even defying gravity. Told in the form of a memoir, the book stars protagonist Robert Weekes who recounts his time as a young man at Radcliffe College studying to pursue his dream of flying Rescue and Evacuation for the US Sigilry Corps. But here’s the twist: in this world, empirical philosophy is a field dominated by women. The greater affinity for magic in the female sex means that they are stronger and more powerful philosophers, which also makes them better conditioned to become flyers—a discipline that few men can master. Robert, however, has flying in his blood. His mother, the indomitable Major Emmeline Weekes is his inspiration and role model, a war hero who has served many years as part of the elite all-women R&E team saving countless lives on the battlefield. Determined to follow in her footsteps, Robert decides to apply to Radcliffe, becoming one of only three men enrolled in the school. And here’s where the story gets interesting. Facing strong pushback from some of his professors and fellow students who believe he doesn’t belong, our protagonist must work twice as hard to prove his worth and be accepted in a role that’s traditionally been closed to men. How dicey, I initially thought, to have story centered around a male protagonist who must struggle against gender discrimination, considering the current feminist movement and how these days books actually tend to feature the opposite scenario. And yet, at the same time I found it to be a refreshing change, not to mention the gender-flip was executed in a thoughtful way that treats women with respect and reverence. (Read the full review…)

Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

Trail of Lightning introduces the “Sixth World”, a post-apocalyptic future in which our planet has gone through a number of drastic changes. Rising sea levels and devastating tsunamis have wiped out most of the earth’s coastal cities, killing billions and leaving only the inland regions and high elevations above water. In the southwest of what was once the United States, the Navajo Nation of Dinétah has survived, shielded by a magical barrier. However, their people too have seen plenty of hardship since the Big Water swept over the continent, isolated as they may be. Many of their legends have come to life, their gods and mythological figures made real. Unfortunately, these also included the monsters from their ancient lore, who are now loosed upon the land, preying on humans. Enter our protagonist, Maggie Hoskie. Whenever there was a monster that needed killing, she and her former mentor Neizgháni, a monster slaying god of Native American legend, would take care of it together. But that was before Neizgháni abandoned her. Now on her own and feeling hurt and betrayed, Maggie ekes out a living by taking on contracts as a monster bounty hunter. Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of books containing elements which have a basis in Native American myths and culture, especially in the urban fantasy genre. But rare it is to find a book like Trail of Lightning where indigenous characters and their lives are at the forefront of absolutely everything, including the story and setting. The world-building is also fantastic, drawing upon the Navajo perspective to flesh out the history and atmosphere of the setting. I loved the supernatural aspects, which we got to see a lot more of as the plot unfolds. It’s like every time you turn the page, the world opens up a bit more, and I had a lot of fun discovering all of it. (Read the full review…)

All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller

I’ve never been able to say no to a good fairy tale retelling. They are my absolute weakness, and I’ve been especially tempted as of late by the recent crop of novels touting the point-of-view of the “villain”. It ultimately led me to pick up All the Ever Afters, which boldly bears the tagline describing itself as the untold story of Cinderella’s stepmother, the notoriously cruel and wicked antagonist from the classic fairy tale we all know and love. However, Danielle Teller’s approach to this novel is one that I’ve seldom seen in most fairy tale retellings I’ve read, in that she has completely eschewed all aspects of fantasy and magic, choosing instead to ground her story in history. Opening on the French countryside sometime during the mid-fourteenth or early fifteenth century, the tale introduces readers to Agnes, a young girl born into poverty, even though now she and her two daughters live at the palace with her stepdaughter Ella and the prince. All the Ever Afters is her own rags to riches story where she tells her tale in the hopes of showing how accounts of her wickedness have either been greatly exaggerated or are outright lies. It is a heart-wrenching novel about growing up with nothing to your name, of having to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps to make your own success. While there have been times where she had to use her cunning or resort to deception to get what she wants, Agnes is no villain. With Cinderella only playing a bit part, this tale truly belongs to her stepmother, who has been given new life. (Read the full review…)

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young

Some books are just so heartfelt and earnest, that they can be forgiven even if the plot is somewhat derivative and relatively simple. That’s exactly how I would describe Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young, a straightforward Viking-inspired tale that never becomes extraneous, leaving way more room for meaningful character development and setting an energetic pace that never flags. The book follows seventeen-year-old Eelyn, a young woman warrior from the Aska clan. For time immemorial, her people have been engaged in a bitter rivalry against a neighboring clan, the Riki. Every so often, their two clans will clash violently on the battlefield, each side losing people after each skirmish. That is how Eelyn lost her brother Iri five years ago, when she watched him get struck down by an enemy blade. But then one day, the impossible happens. During their latest battle against the Riki, Eelyn’s life is saved by a familiar figure who appears out of nowhere amidst the chaos. To her shock, her rescuer is none other than her brother Iri, but he is alive and well, and not only that, he is with the enemy warriors—not as a prisoner, but as an equal and peer. Confused and angry, Eelyn goes after Iri for answers, but winds up being captured by the Riki. Spending the winter with them, however, our protagonist gradually realizes that her captors are not that much different than herself—they all struggle against the bitter elements, are dedicated to their gods, and live to protect their loved ones. I really don’t think Young set out to upend the genre here; I suspect she just wanted to tell a good story and focus on the growth of her characters over time. Perfect if you’re looking for a quick and straightforward read, with almost equal amounts of action and emotion, brutality and sweetness. (Read the full review…)

The Chalk Man by C.J. Tudor

The Chalk Man is a tale of psychological suspense and a murder mystery told through the eyes of protagonist Eddie Adams in a narrative divided between two timelines. In the summer of 1986, Eddie is a 12-year-old boy doing what all 12-year-olds do when school’s out and the weather’s nice: he and his friends Hoppo, Metal Mickey, Fat Gav, and Nicky spend their days playing in the park, riding their bikes, and exploring the woods around their quiet English village of Anderbury. Then Fat Gav receives a bucket of chalk for his birthday, which inspires the five of them to invent a way of communicating amongst themselves by using coded chalk drawings. Soon, all of them are using this system to leave each other secret messages—until one day, someone else uses their code to lead them to a grisly discovery. Fast forward to 2016, and Eddie is a middle-aged man recalling the day thirty years ago when those unexplained chalk drawings pointed him and his friends to a dismembered body in the woods. He had thought the past was behind him, but then he receives a letter in the mail with a single stick figure drawn in chalk. The mystery deepens when he finds out that his friends also got the same message, reminding them all of what happened that summer. The whole town had thought the murder was solved, the killer identified, and the case put to rest—but the little chalk man suggests otherwise. This book had me engrossed from beginning to end. Like all debuts it had its flaws, but nevertheless, atmosphere was something Tudor managed exceedingly well, creating a story filled with tension and suspense. This kept the overall mystery unpredictable with carefully constructed false leads and surprising twists, resulting in a very entertaining novel. (Read the full review…)

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruoccchio

As a youth, all Hadrian Marlowe wanted was to one day take his father’s place as head of the family business, even though he held no enthusiasm for the prospect it in his heart. Sibling rivalry, however, would spur him on do anything to prevent his cruel and nasty younger brother form being named the heir. But their father had other plans, shipping Hadrian off to the Chantry so that the Marlowes would have an insider with influence in the galaxy’s most powerful religious organization. Fortunately, with some help, Hadrian manages to avoid this bleak future, but winds up penniless and in exile on a remote backwater planet, going from privileged son of a nobleman to living like a beggar on the streets. Desperate to earn a way off-world, he sells his services as a gladiator, eventually achieving enough renown to be hired by an aristocratic family to tutor them in languages. His various roles lead him to an encounter with a prisoner from an alien race known as the Cielcins, who are at war with humans. Working together with a xenobiologist, Hadrian begins his journey to understand the so-called enemy in an attempt to broker peace between their two species. Told in the tradition of epic fantasy novels like The Name of the Wind, Empire of Silence is an autobiography-style narrative recounted by a controversial and misunderstood protagonist who looks back at his long and storied life. It’s a confluence of genres as readers are presented a sprawling blockbuster novel containing just as many fantasy elements as sci-fi. While I can’t say there is much in this novel that is truly original, what makes it special is Ruocchio’s enthusiasm and willingness to blend all these ideas together into one cool concoction. Any points the novel loses in the originality department, it more than makes up for it with superb character development and the sheer “unputdownability” of the storytelling. (Read the full review…)

Breach by W.L. Goodwater

Breach opens on a world very different from our own. World War II happened, yes. But a generation later, even following the devastation, the world’s powers continued to clash—with war, ideology…and magic. Though thaumaturgy is widely seen as a weapon of the Germans because of how brutally the Nazi troops used magic to do horrible things during WWII, American researcher Karen O’Neil is trying to change that perception. To counter magic, she reasons, one must be able to understand it, and it need not be a tool for destruction either if its power and energy can be harnessed to do good. As a woman and a magician, however, Karen’s quest is an uphill battle, given how wary the public is regarding anything to do with magic. One day, an urgent request for a magical expert arrives from Germany, warning of a breach in the Berlin Wall, which in this world is a massive construct made entirely of magical energy. Karen is tapped for the assignment, amidst backlash from her male co-workers who feel she would not be up to the rigors of the job. Determined to prove herself, Karen throws herself into finding an explanation and solution for the growing breach, despite increasing signs that the problem may be linked to greater dangers involving deadly conspiracies and powerful secrets. The plot reads like a mystery, with emphasis on investigations and spycraft early on, though there is a lot more action and suspense in the second half of the novel. I was surprised how much I enjoyed Breach. Mostly, I wasn’t sure how I would take to the novel, given my last venture into a Cold War alternate history was met with mixed results, but I’m pleased to say W.L. Goodwater has delivered a fine thriller here, laced with just the right amount and balance of history, action and magic. (Read the full review…)

38 Comments on “Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Debuts of 2018

  1. You have a real variety of different genres on this week’s list Mogsy! I’m eager to try and get to Trail of Lightning in the new year as it’ll be the first book I’ve read about Native American characters, and I’m keen to try and read more books about their culture (both fiction and non-fiction). I (shamefully) still haven’t finished The Poppy War yet, but I’m determined to try to before the end of 2018!

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  2. The Poppy War was indeed one of the revelations for 2018, and I can’t wait for the sequel to be published. As for the other titles, there are a few I would add to my TBR as soon as time allows, especially Empire of Silence and Trail of Lightning.
    One of these days… one of these days… 😉

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  3. I really loved Hazel wood too and liked what you said about the aura of mystery in the setting- so true!! And I adored the prose and the way it slowly built on the fantastical elements. It worked so well for me 🙂 I’m really looking forward to the poppy war and want to check out sky in the deep and the chalk man as well! Awesome list!

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  4. I wasn’t able to get round to The Poppy War earlier in the year but finally purchased a copy at a book convention I went to last month and have set it as one of the 2018 books I need to read before the end of the year!

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  5. Pingback: Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten New-To-Me Authors I Read For The First Time In 2018 | The BiblioSanctum

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